Dennis Klugkist watched as the veterinarian stood before the horse in the stall, looking straight into the animal’s eyes while moving his hand—equipped with a syringe—halfway down the horse’s long neck to inject the needle.
“I thought it was a bit odd,” says Klugkist, a student in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. “I saw him do it a few times, and finally I got the courage to ask: ‘What are you doing? It looks like you’re staring down the horse.’ ”
It turns out that’s exactly what the veterinarian was doing, because looking the horse in the eye keeps the animal distracted so it doesn’t jump around when it feels the needle piercing its skin. “I’ve tried it now and it really works,” says Klugkist. “It was a neat little trick of the trade that he taught me.”
Klugkist and his classmates are learning plenty of tricks of the trade while honing their veterinary skills working in dozens of different veterinary clinics and other sites—a partnership called the Distributed Veterinary Learning Community (DVLC). The 40 weeks of practicum rotations is the final year of the four-year doctor of veterinary medicine program at the University of Calgary.
“We call ourselves the guinea pigs,” says Klugkist’s classmate, Alyssa Eslinger. As the inaugural class, the 30 students are the first to come through the program and the first students to head out into DVLC rotations in community practices before graduating in the spring of 2012. “We feel like pioneers,” she says.
Unique in Canada
The vet med Class of 2012 is, in fact, helping pioneer a new way of educating veterinarians. University of Calgary is the only veterinary school in Canada, and one of only three in the world, to rely completely on a community-based teaching model rather than an ?on-campus veterinary teaching hospital, says the dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Alastair Cribb.
“Academic teaching hospitals have been the norm for a number of years,” he says. “But over time, all veterinary colleges have started to do more and more with their communities.” Veterinary teaching hospitals are expensive, difficult to sustain, disruptive to nearby established veterinary practices and usually only treat the more complicated, tertiary cases.
“The whole point of sending the students out into the community is that they get exposure to and trained in dealing with the types of things that you actually do as a practicing veterinarian,” says Cribb. “You get to see a very high case load and you get to see the cases from the beginning—they haven’t already been treated two or three times.” An added bonus for students is being able to see the business side of running a veterinary practice.
It was a little different when Dr. Craig Dorin of Veterinary Agri-Health Services in Airdrie went to veterinary school in the 1980s. When he graduated, he went from the academic environment to the real world in one big, hard and fast step. “They said: ‘Here’s the truck and here are the keys and there’s the pile of equipment, take what you want and here’s your first call,’ ” he says. “A lot of us learned at the school of hard knocks.”
Dorin’s practice is one of more than 60 private and public veterinary practices as well as federal, provincial and other animal industry agencies that are taking part in DVLC. Many of the veterinarians have been working with the faculty since its inception in 2004. “As soon as the vet school was announced, they started reaching out to the community as advisors and committee members and to help pull this whole thing together,” says Dorin.
BSE to Veterinary Medicine
While a Vet Med school had been talked about for years, the province and the university started making it happen in 2004, following the discovery in Alberta of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), a progressive, fatal disease of the nervous system that can be transmitted to people. The ensuing crisis in the Canadian cattle industry highlighted the need for more skilled veterinarians to work not only in Alberta’s food animal industries but also in ecosystem and public health as well as comparative health and biomedical research.
That founding commitment to research holds true today. Not only do faculty and researchers work on cutting-edge animal and human health research with their colleagues in the Faculty of Medicine, several DVLC partners are involved in research projects with the school.
Moore Equine Veterinary Centre just north of Calgary is helping explore the effectiveness of two antibiotics, a research project that’s a great opportunity for both the clinic and the faculty, says Dr. Chris Berezowski. He and his colleagues at Moore have been happy to partner up. “We are pretty intertwined with the vet school,” he says. “As a group, our practice has been involved from the beginning, and we are involved as instructors and working on different curriculums and such.”
The dean says community veterinarians like Berezowski have played a big role in teaching students in the state-of-the-art facilities at the Clinical Skills Building on the Spy Hill Campus. “We have a lot of practioners who are out in the field coming onto campus to teach students and our faculty members work out in the private practices,” says Cribb.
Out in the field, the community veterinarians are encouraged to look for opportunities to go a step further to educate the students. “I had a client who had lost a cow and he didn’t want to do a post-mortem, but it was a potentially interesting case,” says Dorin. “Working with the faculty, we are able to do a work-up on some cases that we might not do otherwise. I asked the farmer if he would mind if we did an autopsy at no charge because I thought potentially we could learn something.” The farmer agreed and Dorin and the students performed the autopsy (complete with Dorin’s tips for protecting themselves during the procedure) and sent samples off to the lab.
Another day, Dorin took one of his students—a city girl—to a branding where she vaccinated calves, administered medication and saw first hand how a cattle ranch works.
40 weeks of practicums
Students see everything including ranches, specialized equine practices, exotic zoo animals as well as plenty of cats and dogs during their 40 weeks of rotations. Half that time is spent in mandatory rotations: four weeks each of food animal, small animal and equine medicine and surgery; four weeks of laboratory diagnostics; and four weeks of rural community practice.
The students spend another 10 weeks in one of the four areas of emphasis offered: production animal health; ecosystem and public health; equine health; or investigative medicine. Finally, students are able to fill another 10 weeks of rotations with a range of elective rotations that includes a good selection of small animal placements.
Since first reading about the school (while visiting with a cat and a lizard in her boyfriend’s apartment) Eslinger thought she wanted to be a small animal veterinarian. But after cycling through different clinics in her last year and learning more about larger animals, she’s working on a new plan.
“Last month I was with a horse vet and this month I am with some vets who mostly work with beef cattle, and I am finding that I am enjoying the large animal work far more than I thought I would,” she says. “Now I am considering working in mixed practice much more strongly than I ever had before.”
Klugkist—who grew up on an Alberta dairy farm—has always intended to work in a dairy practice, but he is nonetheless grateful for the opportunity to learn more about horses and other animals. “There are aspects of equine medicine that I can carry over to dairy practice. As well, there are similar cases, interaction with clients—things like that are all valuable,” he says. “Depending on where I end up when I graduate, I will be doing a little bit of equine as well. It’s a good idea to diversify and have a little bit of everything.”
Getting that “little bit of everything” requires the students to pack up and move into a brand new clinic every few weeks—something that Klugkist admits was pretty nerve-racking the first few times. “I think the most intimidating part is when you have a case come in and they just look at you and say: ‘What do you want to do?’” he says. “The very first time, I think I was almost a bit shocked or taken off guard, but we got through it together. I don’t have all the answers right away but so far every clinic has been really good at just supporting you and helping you work through it.”
“It takes about the first week before you start to settle in,” agrees Eslinger, who was mortified in her first rotation when she identified a piece of anatomy incorrectly. “In the second week you really start to find your way around the practice, you’re getting to know everybody and you start to feel comfortable. Then by the third or fourth week you really seem to hit your stride and get the most out of it.”
Enthusiasm is infectious
The veterinarians, meanwhile, say they are getting the most out of having the students in their clinics too. They say it’s personally rewarding to mentor students, it’s helpful having an extra pair of hands working in a busy practice and the students bring a sense of enthusiasm that’s infectious.
“Having the students there is a breath of fresh air,” says Dorin. “It gets us excited about what we do again. My partner and I have had 25 or 26 years in practice and I don’t consider us stale, but on the other hand we’ve forgotten how exciting some of the simple things can be.” Berezowski says the students’ lack of experience actually helps the senior veterinarians stay on their toes. “They bring up some good basic questions that keep you thinking of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” he says.
Everyone involved is being educated during this, the first year of DVLC rotations. “We’re all learning as we go,” says Dorin. “It will be interesting to see how this whole program evolves.”
The faculty members are confident in the students’ level of skill, and that’s being confirmed with positive feedback from the veterinarians, Cribb says. “We have put a lot of emphasis on clinical skills in the first three years, more than you see in any other program that I am aware of, to try to prepare them for this fourth year out there in the community.”
Still, he says, DVLC feels a bit like the first time your kids borrow the car. “They are out there driving on their own. There haven’t been any accidents, they haven’t phoned up with any problems,” Cribb says. “They’re getting to their destination very safely and effectively.”